This article is based on an interview conducted with Kazem Shahryari, an Iranian-French poet, playwright and stage director. I follow Shahryari’s trajectory from his native Iran, recalling the Iranian Revolution, and his journey into exile, combining his own words with my explanations.
The Iranian Revolution was one of the key events of the twentieth century (1978-1979). This contemporary revolution was at the heart of several academic debates, as well as interpretations in order to set its classification and motives. Some of the interpretations stressed its general dimension, calling it the “Iranian Revolution”. Others chose to qualify it teleologically by calling the events that led to overthrow the Shah, the “Islamic Revolution”. The latter interpretation emphasized one of the orientations taken by the Revolution in the making. The Revolution led to the return of the religious leader, Al Khomeini, from his exile in France, and to the establishment of a theological regime. Kazem Shahryari was at the heart of the revolutionary turmoil, as he fully took part in this historical sequence that marked the history of contemporary Iran, and beyond. His commitment all along resulted in him being forced into exile.
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"For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live." — T. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from damaged life.
The genesis of a commitment
To understand the historical sequence of the revolution and Kazem Shahryari’s journey, we need to go back in time to understand the political context that led to the uprising that shocked the world by its unexpectedness. The enduring historical moment shall provide us with some hints to a situation that became unbearable to a large and diverse portion of Iranians.
Since the nineteenth century, Great-Britain was present in the region. It occupied a large portion of Persia (ancient name of nowadays Iran) during World War II. In 1921 the colonel Reza Khan, backed by the British seized power and self-proclaimed as the Shah (King) in 1925. The natural wealth of Iran aroused the keen interest of imperial powers. In 1941, the Shah abdicated in favor of his son Muhammed Reza. In 1953, a military coup backed by Muhammed Reza and the CIA overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Dr Mossadegh. He was considered as having affinities with the USSR, and was seen as a threat to the Shah as well as to his western allies, since he was in favor of the nationalization of the oil industry.
It was in that era, when the country was an object of desire from foreign powers —with the collaboration of the Iranian elite— that Kazem Shahryari was born in the region of the Zagros mountains, in the south of the Kurdish part of Iran, where more than 8 ethnic groups lived. He describes his father as “a worker, but a well-informed worker”. Still, the latter's politicization was not obvious. He sums up his political awareness as being common to totalitarian states. His political socialization was marked by the “’unfair” treatments inflicted by the state. In the words of Kazem Sharyari:
“In a dictatorship, we are not politicized… our action is already political. It’s the governments that lead us to become political by their dictatorial tendencies… unintelligent in a way… by their soldiers and their ignorant policemen… It’s not the same life, not the same policy… in dictatorships… in colonized countries. Iran was a colony, and a rich colony, with oil, uranium, etc. The tiniest spark creates a problem.. no matter how silly it is. But a spark is a spark. It explains why I ignore what it means to be “political”, and what it means to be “politically” ignorant. By the way, after 50 years of artistic and political activity, I still don’t know if it’s me, or if it’s them, or the context, that led me to be so critical toward those who are in power”.
In this country the control was complete. It was ruled with an iron fist by the Shah, who was not elected, nor supported by the masses. What was at stake was the loss of his power and thus he left no opportunity for any opposition. “Fear” was shared both by the powerful, as well as citizens/subjects. The boundary was clearly delimited on how to act (both within the state, as well as between individuals). The first arrest of Shahryari came to confirm the interiorized distrust generally found under authoritarian regimes.
“It was a little bit like a concentration camp…. You quickly know who are the bastards and who are the resistance fighters… I mean among the prisoners. Among those who were organizing… that’s it... It’s how I understood it. It was a love letter that I wrote for the school magazine, and I have learned that it was considered as a political threat, and the police overreacted. This has awoken a deep sense of resistance, and from that moment it was clear for me that I will overthrow the Iranian Kingdom without hesitation…. And it’s what I did”.
The triggering event that led him to politically “commit” (even if he disqualifies it as such), was his arrest at the age of 17. He wrote a poem for his high school newspaper. And as trivial as it might seem, the authorities did not appreciate it. Even though the poem was far from being a political one, the interpretation that had come out of it was different. This poem jeopardized the whole school. Everyone was arrested, from pupils to the principal, as well as the budding playwright and his relatives.
“ We used to create newspapers in high school that were pinned to the wall… you also do this here [in France]. We have created a nice newspaper, and everyone had to write an article, and I wrote an article about a female poet who died in a car accident. My article interpreted the cold, and its title was ‘I'm cold’, and it was a love letter to a woman who abandoned me and betrayed my love, it was the female poet who died, and she was 20 years older than me”.
Sharyari became conscious of the arbitrariness of power or of the “danger of a word” enunciated at that moment in Iran. This consciousness wasn’t acquired through a global awareness of what the people of Iran were suffering from. It was neither a political socialization with peers, nor a scholarly one —a wide range of books were forbidden, among them the political literature—, and not even from a pure political activity. Shahryari, rather, took it as a “personal offense”. The unfairness felt by his arrest by the authorities of the Shah was the reason for him becoming political.
After his release and the collective punishment, a network was created. This network helped to create politicization, but without overt organization. There was no structured organization of their activity. The main work of “resistance” was made undercover.
“From that point, everything depends on you. How you form your mind, and how you fight for your sense of pride, your ego. It is because we broke your dignity, and you don’t want to let it go. So for me it was primarily a fundamental personal matter, which means that if I wasn’t arrested, beaten up, maybe I would have been a normal man. I don’t know what I was and would have become. Because in History, there is no ‘if’. I can’t say ‘if’. But I do theatre, ‘’if’ is very important”.
His personal promise to “overthrow the Iranian kingdom” was coupled with his dramatic and artistic work. Since he couldn’t directly face the system set in place by the Shah, which was marked by a complete control of the society, it was via writing that he resisted. “Resistance”’ as a response to the injustice made “a personal affair”, came to prepare for his commitment during the upcoming revolution.
“It’s because of all these issues that I read a lot… the first play I chose was not randomly made, it had meaning, and it went against the established regime. Each time that there was a feeling of a roaring war, a play against war was written, every time that there was a sense of ignorance, a play that goes against it… and I quickly wrote my first play, and I wrote at an early age, but everything was a pure coincidence”.
One of the important elements of his trajectory is the absence of any political affiliation, be it to a political party, or an organization. Other than the material impossibility of such a thing under the reign of the Shah, the political divergences made up that Kazem Shahryari was never a follower of a party or an organization.
The continuity of a commitment: Revolutionary times
Kazem Shahyari was 24 when the Revolution broke out. At the time he was a student at the university of Tehran, at the Conservatory for dramatic arts. His commitment to the revolution was tied to his artistic activity. The revolution took everyone by surprise, and those who threw themselves into it were never expecting it.
“I didn’t get involved, I was already involved. We made a revolution before the revolution. I was at the university, and at the conservatory for dramatic arts, and the struggle started way before. Our struggle was to have access to an audience, to have access to books, to thought at an academic level. This meant to negotiate with the director [the dean] to get access to books. We were supposed to know everything, so why was it forbidden then? For instance having access to Pasolini movies, to Kozintsev, having debates on these movies. All this was at the heart of politics for me. When we did it without being aware was equivalent to having a political party struggle. It was part of a political movement”.
The struggle of these “revolutionaries”, who refused to be considered as such, was motivated by mundane requests linked to the pursuit of their art. Having access to books, going abroad, more particularly to the USSR to get familiar with dramatic methodologies. These were their “political” claims. The counterpart to this art-ivism was also the call for the liberation of their jailed colleagues locked in the Shah’s infamous penitentiaries before the revolution. Before the revolution outbreak and from 1976, the Shah regime launched small reforms granting some liberties. Facing a growing economic crisis due to a drop in oil prices and a popular anger, the power started to adopt liberal measures that soon will lead to its collapse.
“Yes, everyday that passed… soon before the revolution and from 1976, they started to soften their grip. In 1977, he [The Shah] started to give us crumbs, but as they started to give us so little, we wanted more. In 1978 two students led the university of dramatic arts. We were at the end of the academic year. There was me, a friend, the professors, as well as the director [the dean]. Our opinion mattered before all, without our opinion, nothing would have been implemented; otherwise we would have gone on strike. If I said so, we would go on strike. And I wasn’t even a trade union member, there was none.
Amidst the revolution in 1979, students took over the Opera of Tehran. Kazem Shahryari took the head of the opera, which was one of the important places of the Shah’s cultural dominance. The conservatory students performed plays that were not appreciated by everyone.
“There was death among the audience, because when we speak about revolution, it wasn’t that simple in Iran. It was a double revolutionary movement. There was a progressive movement, and this was us. And there was a religious movement, which was also terrible, and it was them who were shooting, they had sticks, and it was them who defined Islam as Islam. The two movements were advancing, and the Islamist movement started to grow quickly, and took over all the rest. As the West totally backed them, the Americans, the French. They came back [from exile] to Iran with French planes [lent by the French government], escorted by French police. The first article saying that Khomeini was the Lenin of our time was published in Le Monde [a prestigious French newspaper]. This French article was translated in all the magazines….”.
The unifying aim of the Iranian revolution, made up of a multiplicity of actors, was to overthrow the Shah. Slowly the party with an “Islamicate” baseline monopolized the revolution. This baseline was largely mobilized as a political resource, by holders who didn’t share the same interests, nor long-term objectives. A violent cycle began. As soon as the primary aim was reached which was to overthrow the Shah, an internal battle started. Brutality and violence became the only means of debate.
“All without any exception used violence, and we were few to refuse the idea of an Islamic republic. And we were soon to be outcast because of this. We were soon to be arrested by the militias because of this before he [Khomeini] came to power. When they came to power, they couldn’t find me; they wanted to kill us, all of us, because they knew. It lasted for 9 months, a complete freedom. There was a complete freedom, which in a way, was very negative for some. This means that everyone knew who I was, what my thoughts were, my stance. My program, sort of speak. Everyone knew it. It was easy to pick who to crush, ‘him, him and him… they are anti-Islamists, or at least they are anti religious, and they don’t respect the prophet’. That’s it! In this movement, as in fascist movements, there were no thoughts, no sense of measure, they were cruel, and they quickly gained an audience as they relied on the lumpen-proletariat, the most violent and frustrated masses. They will commit the crime as soon as they get to you, without any trial”.
This turn toward a theological republic was obvious back then, and many went into hiding as a first step while “hope for change” was still there.
The journey to exile
Arrested two times under the revolution, Shahryari escaped several potential executions, and succeeded in escaping after his second arrest. He went undercover hoping things would get better.
“I was arrested two times, and soon after I managed to escape. Hopefully I succeeded the second time; otherwise I would have been killed the day after. And then I went on to hide”.
What was seen as problematic after the revolution were his stances against the establishment of the religious state. He refused to qualify his stance as “political” as this “wasn’t a thing”. Many of his friends tried to make him change his mind. But his ideas on the “freedom of art” were in total contradiction with the expectation of the new establishment. What followed can be compared to a game of hide-and-seek. He knew that if the authorities caught him, he wouldn’t be able to escape. He was at the heart of Tehran hoping to get back to the Kurdish part of Iran.
“ Everything was in progress, but the time was limited. In 1980, it was the end. I couldn’t do theatre, and we still could play in 1980, but it was the end. By 1980, it was the end of it, it was the end. I went undercover in 1980, I avoided even close friends, I changed 6 times my location in a span of 6 months. It was clear that people with whom I used to do theatre gave my name to the government because we did not agree”.
The hiding was the only way. He spent 6 months hiding in Iran, and 9 months hiding in the Kavir Mountain region. His health started getting worse, and he was wounded. He went to Pakistan where he lived for a while. He began getting in contact with some “extremist” students. He needed to find the means to go to Turkey in order to get back to Iran. He “couldn’t do this from the inside, but could reach Iran from an external place”. He wanted to go away, to exile. He managed to get a false passport. He chose France, because he already had friends living there. It was difficult, as the Pakistani police stole his notebook where he had their phone numbers.
“ There were two kind of people. Some had the illusion that they will go [into exile], within a span of 6 months [if things are not heading as expected]. And there were those who thought that ‘we have work’, and they would not go within a period of 6 months. There was this debate… and France was the country of intellectuals, and the Iranian diaspora was known. They were there. This led me to book a flight to Spain. The plan was to land in Paris and people [he knew] would come to pick me up. This failed. Because a Pakistani policeman stole my notebook, thinking it had a value”.
An unwelcoming land: The trajectory of an artist refugee in France
Although he had friends in France, exile was not easy especially due to his new status as an exile/political refugee. Shahryari booked a Karachi-Madrid one-way ticket, with a stop in Paris. His plan was to get to Paris and apply for political asylum in France, As advised by fellow refugee friends.
“And that’s it, I lost all my phone numbers and I said to the French policemen that I was a political refugee. They took me and put me in a jail cell. They jabbed [drugged] me and I slept. They put me in a room to send me to Madrid. There was a German man who saw everything, and he told me in German ‘I saw everything, I saw… if you need a witness’. He told me ‘bravo, bravo… I saw they jabbed you, I saw that they took you.’
The welcoming by the French police was brutal. Sharyari had suffered through a degraded health condition, because of his undercover life style. He had lost more than 20 kilos. The French police sent him to Spain. He lived there for 5 months before deciding to get back to France through the land border. Once he reached Paris, he found his fellow Iranian refugee friends. The disagreements started between them on the situation and hopes regarding what was happening in Iran. Extremely diminished, he was taken to a hospital.
“I had no papers, nothing. A fake passport… everything was fake. When I fainted at the Underground [Metro]… I was taken to the hospital… and after the hospital, an Iranian came to check on me. First he told me that they will put me in touch with Amnesty International. ‘We know you… it will not be difficult.’ At that moment I applied for political asylum. I got it in less than 15 days… I think that it was because of a department in the embassy of France. There was a branch of the consulate behind the University of dramatic art [In Iran]. Our posters used to be hung there for advertising and to attract an audience. It was likely that they knew who I was. It was quite moving to meet with the administrators in charge of granting asylum [OFPRA]. The woman who received me… I was moved by her welcoming and the conversation…”
Learning French was mandatory especially after his decision to settle in France. It seemed to be a “hub” for Iranian refugees. Among the 4 millions who left Iran, the majority transited by France. When asked about it, he said that:
“France was a country that was open, but living in it is difficult, at least for us Iranians. I think it’s one of the countries that are the most difficult, not welcoming, most racist, anti Middle East…. I don’t say anti-foreigners, but anti-Arabs, Anti-Iranians… Us Iranians, we are comprised as Arabs. So anti Middle East… That’s it. I think we… we were very badly welcomed, and there were a lot of suicides”.
The situation of Iranian exiles was marked by a strong social downfall and xenophobia. This explains the great social and psychological issues faced by the uprooted. The intellectual Iranian class found themselves powerless in a country where they were not considered. The hopes to continue to lead an intellectual activity were faced not only by material constraints [language, financial means], but also by the absence of organizations to help these intellectuals/artists refugee.
The hardship of living an intellectual life: The “expected” path to follow for an exile
Once settled in France, the greatest difficulty in the trajectory of Kazem Shahryari was yet to come. He was aware of his talent and only wanted to do what he mastered: theatre. However, he had to face a great disbelief from those who were supposed to be able to help him. The general tendency among his fellow refugee friends, as artists and intellectuals, was to choose unskilled jobs to survive.
“I don’t know any people who are what they were in Iran: artists. The majority of my colleagues became taxi drivers, or sellers of belts, or flowers. The majority doesn’t write in French, but only in Iranian [Persian]. As the time went by, they became economically comfortable. They didn't write. Every year, plays are published in Iranian [persian/farsi], but in other countries of exile. There are some in northern [European] countries. Sweden for instance, which is a democracy compared to France, is most certainly more democratic, it is self-evident”.
The first recognition he got as a playwright was from an American in Paris. He was able to get contacts with the closed cultural field in France— one that is deeply racist and xenophobic. Yet, Kazem Shahryari refused to live in the USA where his brother relocated before the revolution, and where he himself lived for a while before the revolution.
“I know the US which pays its workers on a weekly basis. I have a strong and bad opinion on this struggle for the minimum [wage]. There is no political consciousness; this also is to be taken into account. And I was deeply inflicted by Elia Kazan who betrayed American artists…”.
The US was not a desired option. Two figures, Arthur Miller and Lee Strasberg’s assistant, Andreas Voustinas, nonetheless helped him directly and indirectly set his feet in the world of French theatre by giving him the opportunity to demonstrate the extent of his talent, of what he was capable of.
“Arthur Miller, the American playwright, had an idea for us Iranians as he was at the head of the Pen Club. He was supporting Iranian intellectuals. My brother is American, he relocated there 10-15 years before the revolution. My brother went to see him to tell him ‘my brother who you defended…. an artist…’ He told him that I should come to the US, But I hated the US. It’s a country I can’t stand. I went there before the revolution, and after I established myself here [In France]. I was quite weird, throughout my studies, I never passed an exam in English. I was on a strike.
And he [Arthur Miller] said: ‘Go see a friend of mine, he is the assistant of Lee Strasberg, the founder of the Actor Studio. He is in Paris, after he was invited by 50 French actors. Go see him on my behalf’. But I didn’t go to see him on his behalf, I went to see him, simply. I didn’t say ‘on behalf…’. Fortunately he spoke English. We talked, and I didn’t speak French. He said, ‘you are welcome, but I don’t know what to do’. ”
Strasberg’s assistant Andreas Voustinas enabled him to create a workshop, where he developed his own drama methods. This recognition by one the world-renowned theatre figure paved the way to finding a place within the French artistic world. However, it had its limits because he wasn’t fully accepted. The primary difficulty was gaining access to structures that could help him learn French, his potential “trade” main asset. It was a difficult task. The organizational indigence was the main drawback.
“A week, two weeks… and I needed to eat, I needed to work here. I asked for the state to help me get access to the Alliance Française [an institution that promotes and teaches the French Language], they said no. ‘You have 4 months, we’ll take charge of you for 4 months. We’ll teach you French for 4 months.’ After 4 months, I had to find a job, and [learning] the language was not possible. I said that I am a writer, and that without language, I'm dead. They told me “No, you are not a writer here, you are a sweeper in the Métro [underground], you are an exile”. The Cimade [organization that helps refugees] told me that... France Terre d’Asile. There was no empathy as to help finding an artistic job for an artist. And in France, artists are individuals who put their head down; they are cowards because the state helps them [they fear to lose the grants provided to them]. There is no organization to debate, there is no French Pen Club”.
His journey battling with the French cultural field, despite his French status after being naturalized in the 1990s, was full of dismissal and marginalization by high-ranking state officials. He recalled a conversation he had with an official from the Ministry of Culture.
“You know, in the 1980’s, they told me I had no right to get help from the state, because of an inspector from the ministry of culture. After I became a French citizen, and learned to read, and so on… I went on to check who he was, his background, and I went to read his work, and I found his brilliant PhD thesis, which was written on theater. I was astonished. This man had told me in his office, in August, in the presence of someone from Amnesty International: “ France doesn’t need an Iranian playwright, nor an Iranian stage director. You can do whatever pleases you. I promise you, I will never help you”.
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The cultural field, a space deeply parochial, didn’t open the door and include refugees like Shahryari, who supposedly had abilities that are not expected of refugees to have. Shahryari succeeded in imposing himself, from his marginalised positionality, within the French cultural field entrenched in a long national tradition. Shahryari hopes for a structural change in the cultural field as well as in society in general. It is as a committed “French” that he criticizes the cultural world. I end with his words: “I have understood the power of a word [In Iran]… it was huge, as a mountain. We didn’t need a rifle; the appropriate word is enough. This disease never left me, until now in France… I'm the only writer/artist to be censored by the state, and regional authorities, and by everyone [in the realm of theater].”
Selected works by Kazem Shahryari: